Best Local Musicians In Pittsburgh

April 30, 2011 9:55 AM


The Steel City has spurred many artists to reach musical heights even they couldn’t imagine. From backroom bars to sold out stadiums, Pittsburghers love live music and will give almost anyone a chance. Take a look below and see who you recognize on our list of favorites. All these musicians got their start right here in Pittsburgh.
donnieiris Best Local Musicians In Pittsburgh


Donnie Iris

Donnie Lerace was born and raised in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania. The Slippery Rock alumni fist hit the national music scene as the lead singer of The Jaggerz … obviously spelled to pay homage to Pittsburgh’s own special language “Pittsburghese”. The Jaggerz became famous for its #2 hit ‘The Rapper” in 1970. After the Jaggerz broke up in 1976, Iris toured with Wild Cherry, whose 1976 hit “Play That Funky Music” was also the basis of a top five US hit for Vanilla Ice in 1990. Iris formed Donnie Iris & The Cruisers in 1980 along with Mark Avsec, a keyboardist from Wild Cherry. The group’s first album “Back On The Streets” launched them to fame with the track “Ah! Leah!” One KDKA Staffer said, “Maybe it’s the era that I grew up. Maybe it’s just the type of music. Maybe it’s a little bit of both, but I cannot hear ‘Ah Leah’ too many times. I listen to it when I run and it always puts me in the right frame of mind and always puts a smile on my face!” 14 Albums later, Iris is still making music, and has unreleased material he hopes to make available. “He’s an oldie but a goodie!” He currently works for Sail Mortgage in Wexford.

Joe Negri

Joe Negri says his career has been a “work in progress” since he was 3-years-old. He was chosen to become one of “Pittsburgh’s Stars of Tomorrow” as a child. The judges must have seen that something special because Joe went on to become one of the most recognized names in Pittsburgh music circles and perhaps one of the best jazz guitarists in the country. Mike Tomaro, the head of the jazz studies department at Duquesne University, calls Negri, “Not just a Pittsburgh treasure, but a musical treasure.” You may also recognize him as “Handyman Negri” from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the guy who solved problems in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. He appeared in more than 300 episodes over 35 years. Currently Negri teaches jazz guitar as an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University and Carnegie Mellon University. He just released his 4th album “Dream Dancing” this past summer. A review from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette called it “a dream come true”.

Bill Deasy, singer, musician, pittsburgh

(Photo Credit: Scott Dietz)

Bill Deasy

Bill Deasy is a singer-songwriter and author born and raised in Pittsburgh. In the late 1980’s Deasy’s musical start blossomed at open stages in and around Pittsburgh. Within a few years Deasy and his band, Shiloh, outscored band Rusted Root to win Pittsburgh’s 1991 Graffiti Rock Challenge. By the mid-90s, Deasy became the lead singer of The Gathering Field, whose regional hit “Lost In America”, from an album by the same name, led to a major record deal in 1996. The Gathering Field released three more albums before eventually disbanded, but Deasy continues to record and perform as mostly a solo act. Performing Songwriter Magazine says: “He calls to mind Paul Westerberg and many of the finest rock songwriters who mix poetry and drunken bluster, yet somehow sound macho and sensitive at the same time” and All Music Guide suggests that “Sensitive singer/songwriters are a dime a dozen, but really good ones are a rarity. Bill Deasy is the real deal.” He has performed with artists such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp.

FUN FACTS ABOUT BILL DEASY: Bill was selected as one of Pittsburgh Magazine’s 25 “most beautiful people” in 2005 AND, in 2008, Bill was included in the book “Pittsburgh Born, Pittsburgh Bred” as one of 500 of the most memorable Pittsburghers from the past 250 years.

Etta Cox

Etta Cox may originally be from St. Joseph, Mo., but she has spent the majority of her life here in Pittsburgh. And while here in the ‘Burgh, she’s made herself well known. Cox has been voted “Best Jazz Vocalist” in Pittsburgh for eight consecutive years and has received the Harry Schwalb Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1998. She was also selected as one of the 25 Most Powerful Women in Pittsburgh by Pittsburgh Magazine in 1995 and voted Performer of the Year by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette for 1999. A KDKA staffer commented, “A fantastic singer who can take you somewhere else through song…” She and her husband, Al Dowe, have been performing together for nearly 25 years. Dowe has opened for such notables as Ray Charles and Doc Severinson. Together, they owned and operated the downtown jazz club Dowe’s on 9th. Cox’s abilities go beyond singing. She has appeared on Broadway, in movies, in local productions at the City Theater and the Public Theater, and co-hosted a television talk show. Ms. Cox is currently a Voice and Solfeggio teacher at CAPA (Creative and Performing Arts High School) in downtown Pittsburgh.

Maureen Budway

Maureen Budway is another one of Pittsburgh’s best jazz vocalists. A master of traditional and jazz repertoires, she began singing professionally at the age of 18. She holds a Bachelors degree in Voice performance from Duquesne University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Voice from Carnegie Mellon University. Budway has performed at the Mellon Jazz Festival, Three Rivers Arts Festival, and The Hidden Valley Festival, and also with the Pittsburgh Symphony. She was winner of 1985 Pittsburgh Concert Society Competition. Budway has performed with jazz greats including Jeff “Tain” Watts, Hubert Laws, Sean Jones, Houston Person, Marcus Belgrade, Ronnie Cuber and Louis Bellson.Ms. Budway is currently on the voice faculty at Duquesne University.

Kenny Blake

Critics say contemporary jazz was elevated both artistically and commercially by internationally-acclaimed saxophonist Kenny Blake. He combines traditional jazz with modern rhythm and blues to make some of the most distinctive sounds of the genre … what he calls his “soul hybrid”. One avid listener who works at KDKA said he “Didn’t know a sax could do that!” After attending Columbia University, Blake toured with his sax, playing at what he describes as “the seediest hotels and clubs imaginable”, before returning to Pittsburgh. He then immersed himself in the city’s great jazz scene, exposing himself to its best players and performing for many years in numerous R&B and jazz ensembles before forming his own group. Blake then joined the MCA pop-jazz band Cabo Frio before signing with Heads Up after which he produced 3 critically acclaimed recordings. Kenny works with an array of top musicians and performs as a duo, trio, quartet and sometimes adds a vocalist to provide a one of a kind evening of entertainment.

Olga Watkins

She’s a self-proclaimed “Diva, Bombshell, Kitchen Goddess & Vocalist Extraordinaire.” Olga Watkins started her performing career in her hometown of Wheeling, West Virginia. She accepted a full scholarship from Chatam College here in Pittsburgh but her aspirations fizzled and she stepped away from music until 2003. She took up singing once again at the urging of her friends and can now be seen on a regular basis at the Crawford Grill in Station Square and The James Street on Pittsburgh’s north side. She’s also appeared with the Glen Quarrie Quartet, The Kevin Howard Trio, Craig Davis, Kenny Blake, Dr. Kevin Clark, Howie Alexander, Tim Jenkins and many other, talented musicians. Her band was recently voted No. 2 Best Blues Band in Pittsburgh in the 2009 Pittsburgh City Paper Readers Poll. Keep your eye on Olga in 2010 as she, her husband and partners prepare to open a new restaurant in the Morningside neighborhood of Pittsburgh and as she launches her new CD of original music, “Long Time Coming”. When she’s not singing, you can find Watkins in the kitchen. She owns and operates Elite Catering and also has a personal chef service.

Paul Luc

The frontman of the band by the same name is tall and lanky but that says nothing about the sounds that come out of his mouth. His soulful voice has been compared to the likes of James Blunt, David Grey, Adam Levine and a young Rod Stewart. A review by the City Paper says “Like Van Morrison, Luc inhabits the intersection of rootsy folk, pop and slick R&B, melding and crisscrossing between those genres with his distinctive breathy yet raspy tenor” and called The Shelly Street Anthems “easily one of the best local singer-songwriter albums so far [of 2007].” The band’s second album A Revival. A Roadsong. A Rearview Mirror was released last April. Luc says, “With this record, we’re thinking it through a little bit more. We do a lot of editing, we’re not terribly afraid to add things to it in the studio, because then you can take things away at the end. … We drive each other to play better and better. We care about, not just the material, but the recording process itself.” Luc grew up in Natrona Heights.

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